Monday, March 17, 2014

Weekend Viewing - The Blacklist

When it comes to the weekend, there are plenty of things we want to get done. Hike. Bike. Read. Study. Party. Juggle. MMA. Whatever. ...But often we all just want to curl up on the couch and watch something. It can be with friends, family, the cat, or just some alone time. It's a time for "guilty pleasures" (such a dishonest phrase) and/or nostalgia.

To start let's not go with something nostalgic, but new.

So why don't we extract some weekend viewing fun from...

The Blacklist.

Or, The Likable Bastard Show.

Time for a debrief.

The Blacklist is a new Monday night series on NBC...I think. Yeah, it stopped for the Olympics. Honestly, I DVR'd it early on and just started watching it in January (And I speed though commercials. What a rebel.). But doing so has let me get into the show and jump through the episodes and ingest the overarching plot more greedily. Though for this look at the show, I am about 12 episodes in.

The show mixes together aspects of the police procedural with the spy show with the conspiracy show and so on. But what actually sells the show is the face in the titles above. James "Freaking" Spader.

At this point we are well into the era where prominent movie actors litter the TV world. And the quality of TV (thanks to the likes of Netflix and HBO) has actually made that valuable (Unlike when you'd drop an actress like Faye Dunaway into the middle of a bad to generic sitcom.). And attitudes shifted. It's not so odd, a couple of decades on.

It is interesting to see Spader in the role he has in this show.

At the center of the series is one Red Reddington, played by James Spader. He's a former CIA agent that went rogue. Red went off the radar for years. He ran guns, laundered money, killed people, and likely didn't pay any income tax.

But now he's returned.

And he's on a mission. The first part of that is to walk up to the FBI and be detained.

And they are eager to detain him.

He's dearly wanted.

Spader's approach to this character feels very similar to another character he made quite endearing. On Boston Legal he played Alan Shore, a skilled, but arrogant and amoral, lawyer. He had a sharp and fast tongue (And a knack for winning.).

A lot of this transfers over to Reddington. Instead of put downs and legal maneuvers, he has put downs and a readiness to kill you. And, for me, this works quite well. He creates quite the likable bastard.

He is dastardly. He has worked with some of the worst people in the world, he betrayed his country, and...and he just thinks he's so cool!

But he also seems to have a "moral" code of sorts. He has his own ethics. He has a tragic back story. He also has enemies and foes that are far far worse than him. It reminds me of a good piece about writing antiheroes/villainous protagonists. Give them rules, give them something sympathetic, give them something to fight that you can, want to, root against.

Which swings us back to just why he's resurfaced within arm's reach of the FBI. He's come bearing gifts...well, an offer. He wants to be forgiven his sins. And in return he'll help the FBI take down the real bad guys. The worst of the worst. The ones that law enforcement don't know exist. Secret bioweapon researchers. People who stage fake deaths for criminals.Child slavery masterminds. A man who wipes judicial witnesses from the face of the Earth. Baby farms.

But that's not all. He will openly work with only one person. Elizabeth Keen, a new young FBI profiler, played by Megan Booth.

And based on the ads last year, I thought I had this show figured out. It's just Silence of the Lambs, right? That's what this is. And Hannibal already exists!

But while the show starts in that vein, it soon moves past this. The FBI wants Red. But they also come to see that they need him.

He has intel and access that can save lives. But for the first couple of episodes they work hard to contain him, or keep him on a short leash.

But he's a super spy, he slips away as needed, and passes communications, beguiling the agents.

Still, they finally agree to a deal. He is cleared to live in the United States again, as an asset. And he'll point a new task force to threats he knows about.

This leaves us with a host of questions. Why this young agent, Liz Keen? Why does he want her? Is he connected to her? Does he care about her? Does she know something he wants to know?

Her history slowly gets revealed during the show. She's married to a teacher. She lost her family when she was young, in a fire. She also never knew her father. But she has a stepfather that she loves. She has a certain fierceness that can emerge, if she's pushed. It's dangerous to underestimate her. (And I admit I have looked at a couple of the newer episodes, so I know we've suddenly learned that she had an interesting time in her late teens, when she became a skilled grifter...That came out of no where.)

Red never really explains why he cares. But he is hiding secrets about her family. And he's told her that he is not her dad. I kind of want to believe him on this. but he is a skilled liar. Still, it seems like it could be more interesting and complicated if his connections to her are somewhat different than that.

So how she fits into Red's schemes is unclear. Is she pawn? Or is she a Queen? We just don't know. But everyone has a theory. And the season will tell.

And the team working with Red and Liz...

Harold Cooper, played by Harry Lennix. He's an Assistant Director of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division. He's a strict and serious man. He doesn't care much for Red. But he appreciates what he can mean for national security. But he wants to contain Red.

(He felt like a serious by the book character that was pretty honest. But, I did see a recent episode that has hurt my respect for the character, having engage in some illegal activities, under orders and for national security. ...He tortured a terrorist to get a confession. The fact the person was a terrorist seems to have made it more acceptable...But that's not what law enforcement should be doing. -- This type of show often asks you to accept these type of things, but usually this show has the characters that are clearly amoral -- like Red -- do this stuff.)

Donald Ressler, played by Diego Klattenhoff. He's a special agent for the FBI. He's a by the book agent, who is hostile at first to Red and Liz. It makes sense, he has been hunting for Red for five years. He's suspicious of what is going on, and what the agenda is. But he comes to accept them, and what Red has helped make happen. He also grows to see Liz as more of a friend.

His character starts out stiff at the beginning. He's given an initially perfunctory role. But he gets to grow and adapt some over the episodes I've seen. I've gotten fond of our little Captain America.

And I have to run the numbers to see how often he gets beaten up or shot compares to the times he takes down the bad guys. The world must know!

And the team grew as we go into the second and third episode.

Meera Malik, played by Parminder Nagra. She's a CIA field agent placed on the team by the head of the Head of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. She's meant to be part of Red's security, but she acts more as an additional asset for operations. She brings in international intelligence and additional knowledge that the FBI lacks. But she has conflicting loyalties.

And it's nice to see more of Parminder Nagra.

We also bring on Aram Mojtabi, played by Amir Arison. He's the team techie. And he's great. He's a brilliant tech guy. He's the best. And he really doesn't seem like he belongs in the field. He'd much rather be away from the fighting. Plus he seems like the lighter character in the group. He seems like the only team member who gets to enjoy what they can do, and feels more naturally human.

More Aram!

Also, when setting up Red's security, Red demands to have a couple of his own people given clearance.

Dembe, played by Hisham Tawfiq. And, Luli Zheng, played by Deborah Craig. Dembe acts as a driver, bodyguard, and an old and close friend of Red. Zheng is more of a financial and administrative confident for Red. Together they help Red move his agenda forward.

They are committed and loyal.

As Red, starts pointing the way towards some monsters operating invisibly in the United States, he keeps finding ways to ensure that Liz is drawn into the midst of events. Into harms way. Into opportunities to test and show her skills. And chances for him to engage her about her life.

And he's very interested in her life. (Both keeping her alive, and her day to day business.)
He continually presses her on her choices. Why she might want kids. Why she's married. Why she shouldn't trust her husband. 

And we should talk about her husband.

Tom Keen, played by Ryan Eggold. Tom's a teacher. He's also annoying. Sorry, he is annoying. He's married to someone who's become an FBI profiler, and doesn't like how her work gets in the way of their personal lives. On it's own, I've never cared for this storyline in a police procedural show. "Oh no! You're trying to stop a murder? But what about date night!"

 Now to be far, he was almost murdered. Then accused of a crime he didn't commit. But he's still annoying...And he takes away from the core mysteries.

But add to that a question about who he really is. Is he a spy using Elizabeth? An assassin? It could be an interesting twist to learn. (And not a first for this type of story.) Then it seems to be shown that he was being framed, by Red. So is that it?

But why would Red want to stage all of that? And afterwards, why does he continue to warn Elizabeth about her husband. It would seem there's a mystery there...But then they add in a potential cheating story with him...Oh no, what about true love... (And then we see that she's actually targeting Tom Keen.)

Here's the thing. If you want we to think he's a villain, this subplot makes no sense. And if he's just a normal husband...he's dead weight for the show. (And based on what I've seen in a later episode, Red doesn't know who the woman is. But he knows that she's watching him as well. So, I guess, it does connect some.) I feel like I'm expected to sympathize with his character, but as he is, I don't.

Tom Keen goes between annoying and boring. Maybe by the end of the season he will make more sense to me. But they need to move his function in the show forward. It is hurting the story and causing Liz's character to regress. Change!

But one thing the show is proving is that it does change and evolve. They have been willing to hit comfortable spots and shake the status quo. Their secure black site was attacked. Secondary characters that we are getting to know have died. New aspects of characters are arising. And we have a certain sense now of the demons that are driving Red on his quest.

Yet what is he after? Redemption? Vengeance? Peace?

It seems like we are asked to see him as wounded and questing. But beneath his shallow jovial demeanor lies some sadness. And beneath that? Hope? Deadened rage? A belief in something good?

There is a theory some has put forward that Liz is related to the main baddie that Red wants. The idea is that he can hold onto her, and draw out someone who is otherwise untouchable.

Or, maybe she really is his daughter.

Or, maybe it's in the gulf between.

I have much yet to learn, and enjoy. And I will be enjoying it.

I will also say I enjoy the potrail of the CIA and FBI as morally grey, and conflicted organizations. As we've seen in the show, they've exonerated Red of a list of crimes that helped place him on a Most Wanted list. And with his freedom, he's sold guns and laundered money (He's also blatantly and personally murdered some people on the Blacklist.). But the powers that be won't touch him. He's too useful. (He may also have some friends in high places.) It's dirty. And that's something that is true of how we operate, particularly when the National Security flag gets planted.

It doesn't feel noble. People making dubious decisions. And we've yet to be asked to watch and cheer as a federal agent takes a power drill to a person.

So far the glamour and violence are the world of the baddies, and Red. And we see where it's taken Red

Lecturing aside, I hope if you are interested, that you will check out the show.

Find out how creepy Alan Alda can be made.

And learn why this woman is so freaking cool.

Check it out. DVR it. And enjoy yourself next weekend.

Here's an extra they produced for the first episode, if you want to here some more:



And I have finally seen the ads for this upcoming episode. More answers! And, I trust, many new and good questions to ponder.

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